Molecular Structure of Ribosomes Revealed

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Ribosomes are the cellular components that manufacture enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and all other proteins in every organism from bacteria to humans. Compared to many other cellular components, ribosome particles are large and complex. Each is composed of two subunits and contains genetic material (ribosomal RNA) and more than 50 different proteins. For more than 30 years, scientists have tried to uncover the ribosome's molecular secrets by deciphering its three-dimensional structure.

This year, three research groups, all led by long-term NIGMS grantees, determined the detailed structures of the ribosome's two subunits. Each group published an initial structure in 1999 and a more refined structure in 2000.

Two of the groups focused on the small subunit, which is responsible for translating the genetic message into amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. These groups are led by Dr. Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Dr. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England. Another team, led by Dr. Thomas Steitz and Dr. Peter Moore at Yale University, studied the large subunit, which links the amino acids into a protein chain.

Many of today's antibiotics act by interfering with the function of ribosomes in harmful bacteria. To examine at a molecular level how the drugs work, the scientists determined the structure of several antibiotic drugs bound to ribosomal subunits.

In addition to providing invaluable insights into a critical cellular component, these studies may help scientists develop new antibiotic drugs or improve existing ones.


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Ban N, Nissen P, Hansen J, Moore PB, and Steitz TA. The Complete Atomic Structure of the Large Ribosomal Subunit at 2.4 Å Resolution. Science 2000;289:905-920.

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Wimberly BT, Brodersen DE, Clemons WM, Morgan-Warren RJ, Carter AP, Vonrhein C, Hartsch T, and Ramakrishnan V. Structure of the 30S Ribosomal Subunit. Nature 2000;407:327-339.

Carter AP, Clemons WM, Brodersen DE, Morgan-Warren RJ, Wimberly BT, and Ramakrishnan V. Functional Insights from the Structure of the 30S Ribosomal Subunit and Its Interactions With Antibiotics. Nature 2000;407:340-348.

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Schluenzen F, Tocilj A, Zarivach R, Harms J, Gluehmann M, Janell D, Bashan A, Bartels H, Agmon I, Franceschi F, and Yonath A. Structure of Functionally Activated Small Ribosomal Subunit at 3.3 Å Resolution. Cell 2000;102:615-623.

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